Two Top Lessons on Fitness from a Former SEAL

Stew Smith in the woods.

After reflecting on the last twenty-plus years that I've been involved in fitness as a student athlete, a service member and veteran, and training others to achieve a wide variety of fitness goals, I realize that I've learned a thing or two. The two lessons that have had the biggest impact on my overall health and abilities are:

Weight loss begins in the kitchen not the gym.

Periodization is the key to longevity as a healthy person and aging athlete.

Outworking Your Diet?

When I first started writing about fitness and training, I was in my late twenties. I spent the previous 15 years as a year-round athlete in high school, then I was an athlete in the United States Naval Academy, and then I advanced into the world of special ops. Up to that point, I was quite certain that you could outwork your diet. Of course, I knew you still had to eat well to gain energy to work hard and train harder.

Perhaps in your teens and twenties, if you put in more than a few hours a day of training, you can. When you are younger and it is difficult to gain weight, you can outwork your diet and still be lean. But as you age, you can look at food and gain weight. Unless you are physically active nearly the entire day, you will likely not be able to burn off the calories you eat, and that causes you to pack on weight every year. 

It's important to eat better by reducing carbohydrate intake and eating more fresh foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and berries – they're great energy sources for you, and are certainly better than high-sugar foods and overdoing the caffeine. Strive to keep it real – no fake foods!  See the Lean Down Plan link for ideas and options that can help you eat to lose weight or maintain weight . 

Lean proteins and good fats like steak, chicken, and fish in addition to a big salad of green leafy lettuce, nuts, and colorful vegetables and fruits all complement each other to help you get control of your calorie intake. Don't forget water – replace all sugar drinks with water and watch the weight drop off quickly.

Injuries Catch Up to You

The problem with trying to outwork your diet is that as you age, you will start to create overuse injuries as the battle becomes futile.

I had a pretty respectable A-game in my teens and twenties, and when it came to high-level fitness I stayed there year after year after year.  Then I turned thirty and it fell apart – injuries compounded on each other, a combination of traumatic sports injuries and overuse injuries caught up to me.  An ankle surgery, a shoulder injury, a stress fracture, and several run-ins with tendonitis took its toll. I had to rebuild and get smarter with training.

Since turning 30 years old and becoming smarter with regards to training, studying physiology, and joining the National Strength and Conditioning Association, I went back to how, as an athlete, we trained to be bigger, faster, and stronger for sports season. Periodization was the key. Just like when you would have pre-season workouts, in-season workouts, and post-season workouts for sports, I created a system that worked for me and geared it toward being a Tactical Athlete. Instead of being an out of season athlete, which military personnel, law enforcement, and fire fighters cannot become, we focus on all the elements of fitness broken up throughout the year. New focuses every quarter help me and other tactical athletes maintain all elements of fitness required to do their job, but does not allow for year-long peaking of any element.  See how the year is broken down in quarters and you can arrange the focal points to any season that works for you.

Spring Cycle 1st Quarter: Calisthenics and Cardio Workouts

The goal of this cycle is to build a foundation of moderate to high-reps of calisthenics or bodyweight exercises to improve fitness testing scores, but to also burn off some of the bulk you created during the winter weight-lifting cycle. Progressing the running each week is critical to this cycle as well, and will help prevent over-use running injuries when starting back up again. This is a great foundation for everyone when getting into a resistance program.

Summer Cycle 2nd Quarter: Calisthenics and Cardio Workout (Increased Difficulty)

This phase takes the last cycle and builds upon it further with more maximum effort (high rep and high mileage cardio) workouts.Typically at the end of this cycle you will reach a peak in cardiovascular and bodyweight performance. At this point, you will be ready for a change. My error in the past was to keep doing this year after year and adding extra weights to the game.  I found separating the two worked well.

Fall Cycle 3rd Quarter: Some Calisthenics, Some Weights, Cardio Workouts

Change your routine a bit now. Decrease reps of calisthenics, but add weights incrementally each week to build up your strength. Adding weight vests to calisthenics is a good way to transition into weighted activities in the gym too. Cardio options grow by adding more non-impact to your decreasing running routine as you taper a bit to prepare for the weight cycle. I have found that it is difficult to maximize running pace in timed runs and lifting heavy at the same time.

Winter Cycle 4th Quarter: Near 100% Weights and Less Running, More Non-Impact Cardio

As a former football player and power lifter, I have always enjoyed this cycle and found that within 4-6 weeks, I was back to old max weight (1RM) in several exercises including bench press, squats, power clean, and dead lifts. Usually weight gain will accompany this cycle and typical results are an additional 10-15 lbs. To prevent the weight gain, you have to work hard in the kitchen as mentioned above.  The legs (knees, hips, shins) will feel good on occasional runs after a few weeks of tapering down to more non-impact cardio. 

I have been doing this cycle now for over 15 years and it has absolutely been the method that saved my ability to still train hard. Competing in obstacle course races, moderate distance runs, lifting competitions, triathlons and even playing sports can still occur using a system like this vs constantly hammering yourself with the same old butt kicking workouts year after year. In a nutshell, break it up through the year and eat smarter.

Variety is the spice of life – Enjoy the journey. In a nutshell, break it up through the year and eat smarter.

Stew Smith works as a presenter / editorial board with the Tactical Strength and Conditioning program of the National Strength and Conditioning Association and is Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS).  There are also over 800 articles on Fitness Forum focusing on a variety of fitness, nutritional, and tactical issues military members face throughout their career.

Latest Fitness Books: Navy SEAL Weight Training and Tactical Fitness

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